Lighting Separation Anxiety

Lighting Separation Anxiety

I collaborated with photographer Daihezi Ji on a lighting test to show movement yet freeze her in the same frame. I set my camera to rear sync to fire my Profoto B1s at the end of the ½-second exposure with the backdrop/hair light positioned camera right in a silver collapsible beauty dish to provide separation. The keylight, also in a collapsible beauty dish, was positioned camera left.

Mastering the art of quickly setting up and breaking down basic lighting scenarios should be a part of every professional portrait and studio photographer’s modus operandi whether they’re shooting for a publication, private client or creating a body of stock work. Using simple backgrounds and framing the image with room for type will give the advertising or magazine client (or potential client, in the case of stock photography) room to work with.

When creating original work for an advertising agency, client-approved storyboards and layouts give everyone on the creative team a clear idea of the final product. Casting, wardrobe, locations, color of backdrops if working in a studio and position of the talent in relation to where the type would go can be sketched out in advance. But when it comes to stock photography or photographing celebrities for editorial syndication, the end product is yet to be determined.

These days, many advertising agencies and in-house company art buyers are taking advantage of the cost savings of stock rather than turning to photographers for original work. Simple but effective model-released three-quarter and portrait shots of people portraying business and medical professionals, in particular, are in constant demand in the stock photography world.

Lighting Separation Anxiety
Keanu Reeves photographed with a large softbox camera left and a light with a grid on a small stand directly behind him to illuminate an area of the black seamless background for separation and dramatic effect.

Since shooting for stock is a bit of an on-spec gamble, putting together a large crew, pulling wardrobe and doing a major casting call might not be cost effective. But simple setups can keep the costs down and the quality up if done carefully. While I’d suggest that photographers have at the ready a three-light kit for both impromptu studio work and location photography that requires lighting, even a two-light setup can produce great results. The key, and this is my usual mantra when teaching lighting classes, is to “control the light or it will control you.”

Softboxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes, grids, foil, reflectors, flags, scrims and so on are great light modifiers. If I’m taking the studio on the road, I turn to my Profoto B1s and the company’s collapsible beauty dishes and small grids that fit over the heads. Two monolights fit into my Tamrac rolling bag, with my small reverse folding stands, fabric backdrop, fillable sandbags, A-clamps and gaffer’s and painter’s tape fitting into a grip bag. My cameras and lenses go into my camera backpack. With this system, I become a self-contained mobile studio.

My usual protocol is to set up my background first, whether it’s a fabric backdrop or paper seamless, then mark where I want the talent to sit or stand with painter’s tape, then light the background or put up a backlight, then finally position the keylight.

Lighting Separation Anxiety
A behind-the-scenes image of PSY about to be photographed for a magazine cover in a small greenroom. Strobes in softboxes on camera left and camera right illuminated him. There was no need for a light to separate the K-pop megastar from the background since it was white and his clothes, jacket and pants weren’t.

Many years ago, the late, great photo magazine Camera & Darkroom ran a Patrick Demarchelier image on the cover of Linda Evangelista in a black dress against a black car. It’s a fantastic image by a legendary photographer I had the honor of interviewing for the magazine. Unfortunately, Evangelista ended up as a floating head. The subtle separations that were there in the original disappeared in the reproduction process. The photo had initially been shot for a high-end fashion magazine capable of reproducing the gradations of grey to black. Annie Leibovitz told me that she used to blast the light to create separation in her images when she was shooting for Rolling Stone magazine in the early days when the publication was printed on newsprint.

While printing techniques have improved over the years, how can we avoid separation anxiety when working with subjects and backgrounds being almost identical? Backlighting. This approach can be very simple. Just throwing up a light aimed at the background isn’t the solution. Too much light can create a hazy light spill onto the subject and into the lens, especially when the subject is fairly close to the background. I typically adjust the power so I have my backdrop or backlight meter a stop to a stop and a half more powerful than the keylight. In other words, if I’m going to photograph a subject at ƒ/5.6, my keylight will meter at that ƒ-stop while my background and/or the backlight will meter between ƒ/8 and ƒ/8.5. The light from the strobe separating the subject from the background will always be shaped by a grid, cookie, flag, foil, softbox, umbrella or bounced into a foamcore V (two pieces of white foamcore taped together). I can’t recall a shoot where I just threw up an open head and hoped for the best.

When everything is set up, I can then flavor to taste, meaning subtle exposure adjustments, perhaps adding some fill with a foldable silver or white reflector or creating a harder shadow with black. Back in my assisting days, I would sketch out lighting schematics and note all the settings. I would then paste a couple of Polaroids on the facing page and keep them in a three-ring binder. I continued this methodology as I established my own career. While Polaroids for testing the light are now a part of history and keeping a physical three-ring binder with notes might sound a bit antiquated, committing thoughts and settings to paper reinforces and backs up memory. It also gives us a clear path forward for future shoots. While we don’t want to limit our creativity by always turning to the same lighting setup, there’s no need to keep reinventing the wheel.

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